The Maria, Young Vic Theatre, London ****
Seiriol Davies’s How to Win Against History is not quite like anything I’ve ever seen before. But then again, it is. A pastiche, a satire, a brilliant piece of aesthetic camperie on a par with some of the best, wackiest shows of the alternative, gay scene of the late 1980s and ‘90s by such as Bloolips with the inimical Bette Bourne, Davies is absolutely in the tradition of Lindsay Kemp and probably Oscar Wilde – had Oscar performed as much as written.
When we think of the scandals that break the camel’s back these days, well, they’re nothing to what the likes of Henry Paget, Marquess of Anglesey got up to or other eccentric aristos like Lord Berners. Our contemporary lives pale by comparison!
How to Win Against History certainly reminds us how cross dressing and gender identity issues go a long way further back than today’s headlines. Davies’s How to Win Against History won all the awards going at Edinburgh fringe last year. And judging by last night’s motley crowd – all ages and backgrounds – it’ll be doing the same here in London.
Seiriol is an extraordinarily haunting performer. With Matthew Blake, his aide-de-camp and a wondrously bug-eyed thin streak of an Andrew Aguecheek-like musical director in Dylan Townley on keyboards, they create a kind of burlesquerie tribute to a Welsh aristocrat not only long forgotten but quite determinedly written out and obliterated from history by his relatives, his letter and his diaries all burnt.
Henry Cecil Paget (1875-1904), you see, was a cross dresser – a man of extravagant tastes and particular sensibilities who burnt down the family chapel in order to turn it into a theatre wherein he could star. He married, and not surprisingly, was soon divorced. With Alexander Keith, he toured, eventually became bankrupt and died very soon after in Monte Carlo.
Out of this Seiriol, who remembers gazing for hours as a child at a Rex Whistler mural at the ancestral home of the Pagets and whose mind, judging by the prologue and `feetnotes’ (he prefers this as a plural to the mundane `footnote’) hoovers up and stores information like an ominivorous vacuum cleaner, has restored the Marquis (spelt with an `i’ because Davies prefers it that way) to a celebrated place in history.
There’s no doubt it’s a work of quirky, witty cleverness and invention – a tale told or rather sung through at high pitch, high comedy, larded with modern references, off-beat, but completely and very knowingly in tune with our times, whether taking pot shots at Eton and its macho establishment, heterosexual marriage, Art in Germany, audiences or thespians on tour.
Not that it doesn’t have its quieter, poignant moments – Henry in dark blue spangled gown softly singing of `the butterfly’ – his metaphor for his inner self becoming outer with the beauty of it being all in its stuttering, fluting hesitancy.
And another moment as Lillian (Matthew Blake again) comes to visit the dying Henry: `I hear you’re dying’ `Oh yes, I’m dying’…- the obvious coupled to the bathetic.
Together they sing a refrain first conjured when they meet and become engaged, `This is what it looks like to/To feel what we should feel/This is what it looks like/This is what it looks like/To be real people’ – delicate yet unquestionably a critique of conventional values and social mores.
All of which I admired. And I simply adored master of music Mr Townley and the way his eyes imperceptibly swept the audience before the start with just the lightest touch of irony.
Yet for me the most powerful moment was at the end, when with more than a touch of The Tiger Lillie’s Martyn Jacques, Seiriol dropped the over-done feyness he’d presented as Henry and became instead an angry retort: `I sort of won. YES! I sort of won, if you really think about it…I sort of, sort of, sort of/Sort of! I SORT OF WON!
Now that really was a magnificently victorious, subversive moment – a rebuke to being rubbed out by ancestors. A battle cry of rebellion and resistance. Yes! Most certainly Yes.
Camp, self-conscious but brilliant.
How to Win Against History
A Musical by Seiriol Davies
Book, Music and Lyrics by Seiriol Davies
Directed by Alex Swift
Devised by the Company
Henry Paget, Marquis of Anglesey: Seiriol Davies
Alexander Keith, amongst other persona: Matthew Blake (and co-deviser)
Band: Dylan Townley (and Music Director)
Director: Alex Swift
Designer: Verity Quinn
Lighting Designer: Dan Saggars
Dramaturg: Eve Leigh
Movement Director: Bert Roman
Producer: Åine Flanagan Productions
How To Win Against History was first performed at Latitude Festival in 2015 and at Ovalhouse in 2016.
Edinburgh Fringe Festival later the same year it won The Stage Edinburgh Award and a Broadway Baby Bobby.
The production toured to UK venues prior to its run at the Young Vic.
First perf in The Maria, Young Vic Theatre, London, Nov 30, 2017.
Runs to Dec 23, 2017
Review published on this site, Dec 8, 2017